ERICA JONG’s Fear of Flying, the bible of sexually liberated women, first appeared twenty-five years ago. I was just married and trying for a baby; its tales of voracious sex devoid of commitment (the ‘zipless fuck’) passed me by. Since then, Jong has produced seven more novels, plus poetry and non-fiction, and she now has her own website, where she ‘posts creativity tips to inspire her fans’. Her publicity blurb tells us that she received the same award for poetry as Sylvia Plath. Some dame, one might say.
The new book, What Do Women Really Want? Power, Sex, Bread and Roses, is a collection of article and essays originally written for publications such as Marie Claire, the Independent on Sunday and the Boston Globe. It includes Jong’s Introduction to the Penguin edition of Jane Eyre, along with what seem to be extracts from her previous books on witches and Henry Miller. Recycling is fair enough; but what is then on show is two quite different Jongs. Unfortunately, when she is being academic she is worthy but dull, and when the writing screams out as polemic – much more fun – she is frequently silly. Every line asserts a strident feminism. What is missing too often from either doppelganger is style, insight and compassion.
Power is epitomised by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Princess Diana and Louise Woodward. The Bread and Roses section swoons over Venice, a tree house in Connecticut and poetry. The Sex section (the best in the book – one feels that Jong, four times married, knows her subject) covers Lolita, Henry Miller, Clinton (‘The President’s Penis’), the perfect man. And, apparently, the perfect woman writer. At this juncture, she began to lose me. ‘I belong’, she says blithely, ‘to the first generation of women artists for whom pregnancy is not compulsory.’ Come again?
Here is the problem. It’s tosh, much of it. On the First Lady, for example, Jong bemoans ‘the strange compromises gifted women make’, symptomatised by the ‘pink and pearls’ of recent outings. Yet Hillary is ‘cold and too controlled ‘, giving off ‘an aura of discipline and ferocious tenacity’. What’s wrong with that? What else would one expect from a figure endlessly in the public eye? Jong accuses her of enduring humiliation and saving the marriage so that her husband can flourish, rather than recognising that Hillary, perhaps more than Bill, believes deeply in what both set out to achieve. The author plainly hasn’t a clue what makes a political woman tick, or why any wife might willingly choose to stand by her man.
The Woodward item is a spirited defence of Deborah Eappen, the dead baby’s mother, who, callers to talk shows suggested, should have stayed home to look after him. This perfectly reasonable idea is dismissed with outrage: ‘Women by definition are always guilty. Either they’re guilty of neglect or they’re guilty of abuse.’ Well, not exactly. The Eappens did not (as Jong implies) hire a nanny; they put an untrained teenager in charge of their child. They were too mean to pay for proper childcare, or possibly too stupid to know the difference. In either case, they share the guilt with Louise. No participant should be let off lightly just because she’s female.
I can put up with any sort of tosh if it is well written. So much of this book, however, falls in the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding category. That is the only sane response to such gems as, ‘I assume that piggishness is merely the norm among male politicians’, or ‘Generosity is the soul of writing. You write to give a gift. To yourself. To your reader. To God.’ Anais Nin was ‘a pivotal and important figure in the history of modern literature’. Really? That’s followed by: ‘No married woman writer has ever succeeded in preserving all her work’ – which is surely nonsense. And, breathtakingly, ‘All men are controlled by their pricks.’ This latter comment is on a par with the sober observations of nineteenth-century males that all women were controlled by their wombs: it’s sexist, cruel and wrong.
I am genuinely sorry that Ms Jong’s oeuvre has so irritated me; I was hoping to learn from it. Maybe I missed the point. ‘Let’s be honest about this,’ she giggles. ‘Why do guys want to be President? It’s not for the rubber-chicken dinners.’ It’s not for the bimbo sex either, believe it or not, Erica: it’s because they want to run the country.
Perhaps I hoped for too much. Jong sees sex and gender politics as underlying every aspect of life. Most people don’t. ‘I regard myself’, she says, ‘as a fairly typical member of the female sex. In my fears and feelings, I am just like my readers.’ Not this reader, Sister: you can count me out.